At his home in Stone Mountain, 9-year-old Dylan Beato sat in a chair facing away from the grand piano where his father, Rick Beato, sat. Dylan sat there patiently and quietly, even though all he really wanted to do was return to playing games on his iPad.
Within moments Rick began playing, the notes and chords growing more complex and dissonant. Rick intentionally plays music that sounds like a disconnected, indiscernible wall of noise.
However, even though Dylan may not say much, he hears absolutely everything.
He has what’s called perfect pitch, where his hearing is acute enough to identify each individual note, even from these complex chords.
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“A person who has perfect pitch can replicate any note without having any reference,” said Dr. Mirna Ogrizovic, an instructor at the Atlanta Music Academy. “In an orchestra, you have to tune to whatever note (you want), but someone with perfect pitch doesn’t have to. They already know how it sounds.”
This ability is incredibly rare, and approximately only one in 10,000 people have perfect pitch. Dylan was recently featured on the Science Channel series “Outrageous Acts of Science” for his ability.
“My dad showed me (the TV segment) on his computer,” Dylan said, “One of my friends also saw it, which was cool.”
Biologist Adam Ruben explained in the episode that perfect pitch is a genetic trait that can be inherited, but it does take some musical exposure and practice to heighten. His father, Rick, said that if Dylan hadn’t practiced hearing and identifying pitches and notes, he would recognize the notes slower than normal.
Rick is a music producer. He’s produced three Needtobreathe albums, Shinedown’s first record and the 2014 country hit “Carolina” by the band Parmalee. With his musical background, he says he was able to help progress the development of Dylan’s ear incredibly quickly.
He believes playing music for his son while still in the womb is what led to Dylan’s accelerated mental development.
“I was just curious to see what would happen if you expose a baby, instead of playing baby songs that you would typically hear…What if you played babies really advanced classical and jazz music that has all these unexpected changes to it and dissonances,” Rick said. “Would it sound normal to them?”
In fact, Rick consistently played highly complex, unpredictable and melodic music around Dylan until he about 2 years old, possibly accelerating Dylan’s hearing and mental development.
The key of ‘Star Wars’
Rick didn’t realize Dylan had perfect pitch until he was almost 4 years old.
While driving in the car and listening to a mixtape by legendary composer John Williams, Rick noticed that Dylan was singing each song on key.
“One day, I said ‘sing ‘Star Wars.’ He sang it, and I said, ‘That’s in the right key I think.’… I then said, ‘Sing the theme to ‘Superman.’’ He sang that, and I knew it was in a different key. He sang it perfectly in tune,” Rick said.
During that drive, he continued to test Dylan with different songs in different keys. And when they arrived home, Rick immediately headed to his piano.
“I go to the piano and hit the note B-flat. I’d say, ‘What note is this Dylan?’ And he says, ‘That’s ‘Star Wars.’ Well, ‘Star Wars’ starts in a B-flat major chord. And then I hit the G, and I said, ‘What’s that?’ And he says, ‘Superman.’”
While Rick doesn’t have perfect pitch himself, he has developed a very keen ear. According to Dr. Ogrizovic, it’s impossible for him to develop perfect pitch like his son.
“Over the time you can develop close to the perfect pitch if you’re in music all the time, but you’re born with perfect pitch,” Dr. Ogrizovic said.
Rick continued to test his son’s musical ability, eventually discovering Dylan could distinguish between multiple notes played at once, and he says the only thing more difficult than distinguishing multiple notes is producing them by singing without hearing them first — something Dylan can also do.
“The hardest thing to do is to reproduce notes — to sing them out of thin air,” Rick said. “That’s really perfect pitch. It’s one thing to be able to do it by hearing it first, but it’s another thing to be able to produce it.”
A reflexive memory
Rick soon found put that Dylan’s hearing isn’t the only cognitive ability that is notably advanced. His memory is also near photographic.
“I started reading stuff related to memory, and I taught him the names of the presidents in 15 minutes or so,” Rick said. “He was able to remember it. He can remember really long things like the periodic table.”
Rick then challenged Dylan to start at the 59th element on the periodic table — praseodymium — and say every element until the table ends. Dylan then listed every element at lightning speed, a pace that would make any auctioneer green with envy.
“I find (learning) fun,” Dylan said.
Dylan is also able to name every prime number between one and 100 as well as spell out 20 factorial (20!), which is a 19-digitnumber. It’s so long, that it shows up in most calculators as 2.43e+18 since there isn’t enough space to show the full number.
For Dylan, recalling detailed information— whether it’s B-flat or the digits of pi — is more like a reflex he doesn’t control.
“I don’t really think about it. It just comes to me,” Dylan said, trying to explain it.
Rick initially hypothesized that asking Dylan to explain his perfect pitch is like having someone explain the color red, but his favorite definition so far comes from biologist Adam Ruben during the Science Channel episode.
“This increased activity represents the use of associative memory, which is the kind of memory that you use when you, for example, see a traffic light that turns red, and you immediately associate it in your mind the word stop,” Ruben said in the episode.
Language is another skill that comes quickly to Dylan. Rick says his son is nearly fluent in Chinese, a language Dylan studies at the Dekalb charter school The G.L.O.B.E. Academy.
“The same thing happened to him where he immediately picked up the sounds of the language,” Rick said.
Attempting to recreate Dylan’s mind
Rick posted videos of Dylan to YouTube — originally so his family could see him — and they went viral, amassing more than 33 million views between four videos.
Dylan’s popularity led to phone calls asking for Rick to share information about which music he played for Dylan while still in the womb.
“People would ask me to send them the list of songs, (but) it’s 600 songs,” Rick said. “So I had this idea that I should really have this in an app for people because that’s really the way — take the music and put it in an app.”
As for Dylan, he doesn’t have a particular interest in performing music, even though he was able to play compositions by Bach at age four. Instead, his interests at the moment seem to mirror many other elementary school children. He enjoys playing games , solving puzzles and rooting for the Atlanta Falcons.
No matter what, it’s a safe bet that he’ll remember it all.